The Thousand and One Nights


Arabian NightsI had no idea it was this sexy. The Thousand Nights and One Nights, aka The Arabian Nights, aka The Thousand and One Nights – it’s really wonderful, steamy stuff. Every tale is a cliffhanger and you keep wanting to read just one more to see how it turns out. Of course, that was the point of the collection.*

The backstory is rather complicated, but to simplify it: the Sultan beds a virgin one night, then kills her the next day. When  Scheherazade’s turn comes, she asks for her sister to be able to say good bye. Then she begins to tell her sister a story. It doesn’t end that night, so the Sultan keeps her alive another night to hear the ending. But that story leads to another, and another, and so on. So for three years she keeps up a series of interwoven, intricate tales. In the end, he lets her live.

It’s like the 10th-century version of the TV series, 24. Sex, violence, evil, cunning, violence, murder, betrayal, seduction, magic, demons… it’s all there. In written form, of course, not video.

Yeah, and it’s violent, misogynistic and full of superstition and the supernatural. But you have to give it some laxity: some of it dates back from the 8th century CE. And it’s from a culture that, even today, is remarkably, embarrassingly misogynist. But then, Shakespeare wrote in an age of similar misogyny – although he managed to soar above it, by creating strong, intelligent and witty female characters. The Arabian nights has a few of them, too, albeit not usually in the forefront (and not like Shakespeare’s women).

You probably think you know some of the stories because you’ve seen a Disney cartoon or some Hollywood movie: Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, the Seven Voyages of Sinbad, Aladdin and His Lamp. Sorry, but they were added to the collection by later European translators. They’re good stories, mind you, just not part of the original collection.**

I know, that disappointed me at first, too. But after a few pages into Powys Mather’s four-volume translation, I was hooked. The tales are curious, intriguing and compelling. No wonder the Sultan wanted to hear the next part.

It’s a bit of a daunting task to read it all – each volume is about 800 pages, probably totalling about 2,500 in the set. even for a voracious reader like myself, that’s a chore. But because it’s a collection of short tales, rather than a continuous novel, it’s more easily digested in small slices of time. I can read one, or several tales at a time and work my way through it.

My biggest problem is like eating pretzels or salted peanuts: you can’t stop with just a few. You keep reading/eating. Food for the brain, but at midnight, after a couple of hours reading, you really need to put it down. Words start to swim, paragraphs dance after a few hours of late-night reading. Besides, it’s not the only book I’m reading.

There have been many translations of this collection, but few of the entire group. It’s not  simply 1,001 stories, one a night. Stories often have stories within them. And within them. A single night’s storytelling might include two, three or more tales. Layers within layers. 

Wikipedia tells us the first Western translation was into French,  between 1704 and 1717, by Antoine Galland. Edward William Lane translated 42 of the tales for his 1840 edition and these are often still used in inexpensive editions. Many translations were shortened, bowdlerized and edited or changed (generally censored so the sex was dampened or eliminated until the late 19th century).

The first unabridged – and unexpurgated – translation into English was made by John Payne, in 1882. The Orientalist, explorer and translator Sir Richard Francis Burton did another in 1885. This version is still available in print, albeit as far as I know only an abridged one.  That was my first introduction to this body of stories and somewhere in my library I have a paperback with some of his tales. Andrew Lang’s family-friendly (sexless) version is also popular.

Wikipedia tells us,

 In view of the sexual imagery in the source texts (which Burton even emphasized further, especially by adding extensive footnotes and appendices on Oriental sexual mores) and the strict Victorian laws on obscene material, both of these translations were printed as private editions for subscribers only, rather than published in the usual manner.

Burton’s steamy (by Victorian standards) translations are a bit stilted by today’s standards. Still, I remember reading his tales of adventure and exploration in the 1950s and early 60s, when I was growing up.  Gripping stuff they were, even then. So I have some respect for his efforts.

I am not entirely unfamiliar with Middle Eastern tales. I have been reading Idries Shah’s tales of the Mulla Nasrudin since the early 1970s. I have three or four of Shah’s books in my library, even today. Like many of the the Zen tales in Paul Reps’s Zen Flesh Zen Bones, or the Hasidic stories of the madmen of Chelm, and the Coyote tales of Amerindian folklore, the Nasrudin stories are wisdom tales wrapped in the guise of a folk story. I’ve also read collators like Andrew Lang and others who collected world myths.

J. C. Mardrus did a French translation of the complete work of the Arabian Nights between 1898 and 1904. This is the version that Powys Mathers translated into English, first published in 1923. Wikipedia says “it has been criticized for inaccuracy.” But it doesn’t elaborate on what these inaccuracies are. For a reader like me, they are invisible.

Mather’s translation is what I started reading last week after finding all four volumes of the 1951 edition on sale at the library for $1 each. I’m enjoying the writing. And the find. You never know what will show up on the library sale shelves. Valuable? Only to me, and some aficionados (Neville: I’ll mail them to you when I’m done if you’ll pay the postage)

In 1990, Husain Haddawy released an English translation that was based on the oldest Arabic texts. It was well-received and considered by many the only “authentic” version to date. Haven’t seen this version, but will look for it.

In 2008,  Malcolm C. Lyons and Ursula Lyons published a three-volume translation with Penguin Books that has been well received – they bowed to popular imagination and included the Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba tales in their collection.  I have ordered the paperback edition of this set. In the meantime, until they arrive, I work my way through Mathers.

Elspeth Barker, in her review of the Lyons’s translation in The Independent, commented that the Lyons were too literal, and not sexy enough:

“If one were to find fault with Lyons’ monumental achievement, it would be in the painstaking plainness of his diction… [he] consistently translates the common Arabic zib and kis as “penis” and “vagina”. The cumulative effect is clinical, jarringly out of place in the perfumed chambers and ghostly gardens of the Nights… Despite these caveats, every aficionado will want to add Lyons to a rickety shelf which ideally will also contain Mardrus/Mathers, Haddawy, and the peerless Arabian Nights Encyclopedia by Ulrich Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen…”

Barker wants steamy. The Lyons demure. So Barker then complains,

I don’t want to seem sex-obsessed, but in a medieval fairy tale, albeit for grown-ups, men do not have erections, they have rampant (or even rampaging) zabbs. And to continue the theme, inevitable in this saga, in the story of a Prince “Semi-Petrified” for Lyons, “Ensorcelled” for Burton, a lover lamenting the unpunctuality of his mistress, says, according to Lyons, “I will never again keep company with you or join my body to yours,” but according to Burton, shouts “nor will I glue my body to your body, and strum and belly-bump”. Which threat carries the more weight? Lyons mentions a ruined city “echoing to the screech of owls and the cawing of crows”; fine enough, but for Burton it is a place where “raven should croak and howlet hoot”. Divine. Unfortunately Burton also says things such as “verily this is a matter whereanent silence cannot be kept”. Verily, ’twas time for a new translation.

I dunno. I think I can figure out what rampaging zabbs are. I don’t need to have it spelled out in anatomically correct detail. But perhaps I have the advantage of having taken a course in romance writing (and once belonged to a romance writers group – by the way, I was terrible at writing it). But readers can understand the deflection, the suggestion, better than Barker seems to think.

The Lyons have taken flack from other reviewers, but such is the nature of criticism. Even if it’s about not being sexy enough. In the London Review of Books, Marina Warner wrote,

The fatalism of the tales, combined with their exaggerated luxuries and treasures, penalties and rewards, has meant that European readers have always connected them with irrationality, supernaturalism and transgressive self-pleasuring. But the very terms of that condemnation opened up another horizon.

One of the problems every translator faces is whether to translate for literalness or readability and style. The latter means making some assumptions and stylistic adaptations. Lyons, Warner says, does both:

Every translator, Borges said, must work with the orchestration of his predecessors sounding in his ear: Lyons has paid both too much and too little attention to past versions. The phrasing subdues 19th-century excess and fancy to an extent, yet it’s still packed with words and phrases like ‘lest’ and ‘know then’. Some charming antiquated formulas have been kept, but they are isolated, stripped of surrounding texture, and literal fidelity is overdone: ‘extraordinary sea creatures that looked like humans’ replace ‘mermaids’ in the closing scene of the elegiac ‘The City of Brass’, where they are presented to the sultan as special gifts and given basins of water to live in, only to die of the heat.

I’m of two minds about this: whether to acknowledge the mythology of mermaids or stick to rationalism. Mermaids are well know in mythology and common currency in popular tales, but are, after all, myths, like angels, demons and erudite bloggers. But as Barker notes,

In his witty essay on the translators of the 1001 Nights, Borges celebrates a hostile dynasty, each scion striving to annihilate his predecessor. There are so many manuscripts to choose from, none definitive, representing a fantastical melange of tales preserved, embroidered, lost and reinvented by countless oral storytellers, Arabic, Persian, Indian – and French.

It;s a tough row to hoe. James Buchan, writing at the same time in The Guardian, wrote:

The translations from Arabic by Malcolm Lyons, a former professor of Arabic at Cambridge, are clear and idiomatic and neither prudish nor sleazy. His wife, Ursula Lyons, as well as helping with the Arabic, translates from 18th-century French three of the most famous stories, “Aladdin”, “Ali Baba and the 40 thieves killed by a slave girl” and a Sindbad voyage, for which no old Arabic text survives. Robert Irwin, a great devotee of the Nights, has supplied an introduction to each volume on the character of the stories, their transmission over the generations, and their influence on modern European and eastern literature. It would make as fine a Christmas present as any Christian could want.

That last line threw me. Why would the religion of the reader matter? Wouldn’t it be something every reader want, regardless of faith? Was it because the Lyons weren’t “sleazy?” Is a rampaging zabb prudish or sleazy?

Barker ends her review by commenting, rather back-handedly, that…

Despite these caveats, every aficionado will want to add Lyons to a rickety shelf which ideally will also contain Mardrus/Mathers, Haddawy, and the peerless Arabian Nights Encyclopedia by Ulrich Marzolph and Richard van Leeuwen, which is almost as much fun to dip into as the Nights themselves. Doughty Burton will serve to prop the whole thing up.

Damn, That’s at least a half-dozen titles I’ll want to add to the collection once I get the Lyons’s translations.  Ah well, I can’t complain about learning about something that will increase my knowledge and, I hope, widen my wisdom. And provide some entertainment at the same time – those rampaging zabbs after all.

Buchan concludes in the Lyons’s favour:

The improvements are clear. The Biblical language in Burton, with its ludicrous echo of the Pool of Bethesda (“Take up thy crate”) has gone, along with the superfluous Latinising (“mantilla” for shawl) and the faerie English (“purfled”). Gone too is any attempt to reproduce the Arabic rhyming prose known as saj (“broidered/bordered”, “languishing/blandishing”) and the prurient or speculative footnotes. The Lyons are clear as water at the expense of a very slight flatness (“perfect in their quality”). That flatness or evenness may be the Lyons’ intention, for a reader can put by a dozen of these Nights in a night. The same cannot be said for Burton or Lane or even Galland.

And in the end, I’ll probably donate the books to the Collingwood Library once I’ve finished with them, so, dear reader, if you’re unwilling to purchase your own set, you’ll be able to enjoy them anyway. Just give me a few months.


* In Arabic the series is called the “elf laila wa laila,”  or, literally, “A thousand nights and one night.” The stories are not uniquely Arabic, but come from India, Iran,and cities around the Mediterranean. They are, to Arabic literature, the same importance as the Decameron is to Italian and The Canterbury Tales are to English. Both of which, you should read, if you haven’t already.

** No, Ice Age and its sequels were not part of the tales, even as a heavily-disguised variant. The first Ice Age movie was a great adult comedy, and is worth watching many times. After that, it paled rapidly to the point of inanity by the middle of the second film, and never recovered. Sorry, was that a non-sequitor?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Pingback: Boccaccio's Decameron | Scripturient

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Back to Top